Women and Politics: Reflections of my participation in Kenya’s 2022 Elections

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Despite the myriad obstacles faced by women in politics, many of them have persistently engaged and fought for their space therein. As the material conditions worsen each day, they seek better and hope for better. For most women, participating in governance and democratic processes is often a challenge. A look  at Kenya’s political landscape for instance, will reveal that  women for many years have participated as voters, mobilizers while some have run for political seats. We have made strides and the growth has been significant. However, in many instances women choose to remain as political mobilizers and voters because they are afraid to run for office. This is because the field of electoral politics is considered as ‘dirty’ and violent. Women know that they have much to lose, like their children being kidnapped or killed and with most of them being physically weaker than the average men are more vulnerable to attack hence choose to let their male counterparts to lead instead.

During the 2022 elections in Kenya, I run for the Member of County Assembly political seat in Matopeni/Spring valley ward, Nairobi County, Kenya. My motivation came from the young people that I engaged through organizing in the community and from my engagements with the community. Most of the issues we were dealing with in the community like water shortage, garbage collection and youth opportunities would have been addressed by a leader with political goodwill. Also, young people were desperate for an alternative and they didn’t see any hope in the choices that were available to them. Several people approached me and requested that I vie so that we can shape the politics of my community and provide the people with hope. The people needed a shift from the political culture of bribing voters, campaigning through insults and harassment of the opposition. They needed someone who would bring sanity and change to this toxic political culture.

As a human rights defender and a community organizer, I learnt a lot. One of the questions that I was asked by a very influential person in the community was why they should vote me yet I was one of those who had been holding leaders accountable. They said that a win for me would mean that the people would not have anyone to inform them on what would be happening, and I would have no one to hold me to account. The lesson I picked from that conversation was that the community sees human rights defenders as defenders and not politicians and so there is a need for human rights defenders who want to run for political seats to start positioning themselves in the community as politicians early on; not just when the campaigns begin.

It is also important for one to delegate responsibilities to various  teams; doing all the work alone will not cut it. Active communication, resource mobilization and mobilization teams that are clear to the public on your agenda will sell you successfully as a politician. As a politician you need to be in touch with the community, to understand the issues happening in the community and to be there when needed by the people.

Importantly, one also needs to be mentally and financially prepared. Campaigns and elections are draining and exhausting. I went through the worst mental breakdown during the campaign period. People were always in my mother’s house for help on school fees issues, hospital bills, rent, among other issues. The experience is mentally and emotionally draining, and you suffer sleepless nights, especially when you are unable to help some of the needy cases.

Vying for political office will also cost you your privacy and will invite judgements on the way you have been living your lie.  People will scrutinize you and make judgements about everything you do. People will scrutinize your past, they will question why you are not married, why you do not have children. How you dress and how you address people will also be subject to discussions. You will hear things about you that you did not know. Lastly, there are people who will take advantage of you. It is bad if you are a young woman and  worse if you are from a poor background. People think you are very desperate for support that they will ask you to become their side chick or sleep with them so that they can help you.

Politics in Kenya is also very ethnic-based. It can weigh you down especially if you don’t believe in the use of ethnicity as a mobilising tool. Let me illustrate this with one of my experiences. I once attended a chama meeting organised by some members of the Kamba community. When I stood up, I spoke to them in Kiswahili. They said that I either speak to them in Kikamba because I am also a Kamba or I don’t speak to them at all. From then, I had to polish my Kikamba. I did not expect that in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya but also in this day and age. Before my foray into politics,I had thought that people choose  leaders on the basis of their capability and their track record. Also, with the current state of the nation and the economic crisis, unemployment, and a lot of other issues, I was expecting that the people would be invested in a more liberatory form of politics – one that would lean towards making the material conditions better with promising candidates rather than the typical banal and ethnic-based politics. I think I was naïve then. I had so many instances that I went to speak to people from other ethnic groups and they refused to talk to me on account of my ethnic group. Even those who had benefited from my work as a community organizer changed in electoral politics and some of them even mobilized against me.

These reflections beg the question; what can we do? As a young woman who has participated in politics, and run for a political seat in Kenya, I would suggest a few things:

Foremost, political parties should have  50-50 gender representation not only at the membership level but also when it comes to supporting their members to run for public office and party leadership positions. We have seen so many parties where most women and youth are left to fight for positions at the youth or women’s wing in the parties. This shows that women and young people must fight to be in the party leadership too.

The electoral commission should be rigorous in holding politicians and political parties accountable for any misconduct caused by them or their supporters. Woman rarely get justice for the attacks many of them suffer while on the campaign trail. I remember when I was running for a political seat, my team and I were attacked during one of my campaign rallies and my opponents had my posters removed. This was reported but no action was taken against my opponents. There is also a lot of negotiated democracy when it comes to awarding party tickets and this mostly favors men because most of the women and young people do not have the financial muscle required. Beyond the party, sometimes the  winning of the elections depends on how much money one has because the certificate goes to the highest bidder. There is also the question of sexual favors: at some point I thought of running for the seat on a  party ticket, but the party chairperson I approached asked for sex in return because I did not have money to bribe him for me to get the ticket. This then made me decide to run as an independent candidate.

Most of the campaigns I have witnessed are marred with buying of voters, cyber bullying, attacks, and threats which I also faced. For women to run for a political seat in a safe space, there has to be a set of strategies to handle these challenges and they have to be implemented at all levels, local and national.

According to the UN Women, only 26 per cent of all national parliamentarians are women, up from 11 per cent in 1995. Only five countries have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses: Rwanda (61%), Cuba (53%), Nicaragua (51%), Mexico (50%) and the United Arab Emirates (50%).  Globally, there are 24 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, including three single/lower chambers with no women at all. At the current rate of progress, gender parity in national legislative bodies will not be achieved before 2063.

An article published for The Brookings Institute by Chiedo Nwankwor states that in Africa, 24 percent of national parliamentarians and 21 percent of local government leaders are women. The continent also ranks far below the global average of 20 percent for women ministers in national cabinet positions.

As we celebrate the International Women’s Day 2023 and embrace equity and equality, I acknowledge the efforts that are being made across the continent. However, still more needs to be done by everyone. ore. What we have done is not enough; we are not yet there. I also call everyone to do their part in expanding the political space or levelling it by supporting women to participate meaningfully at all levels.

I celebrate the women who have broken the glass ceiling and prepared the way for other women but also acknowledge that some women face greater challenges and that our contexts as (women) vary. As others are shattering the ceiling, others will need to break the concrete pavement. This difference is something to note and consider as we push for the inclusion and meaningful engagement of women in the space.

I acknowledge every woman who is defying the odds and pushing for women’s agenda in their small ways. The path is not smooth but don’t be weary, it’s those small actions and wins that will make sure that the young generation will not fight as hard as we have.

*Faith Kasina is a human rights activist and a coordinator at Kayole Social Justice Centre.

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